On the Casino Terrace

Grant Allen

[Chapter XVII from the book, Post-Prandial Philosophy,
published 1894 in London by Chatto & Windus]

I have always regarded Monte Carlo as an Influence for Good. It helps to keep so many young men off the Stock Exchange.

Let me guard against an obvious but unjust suspicion. These remarks are not uttered under the exhilarating effect of winning at the tables. Quite the contrary. It is the Bank that has broken the Man to-day at Monte Carlo. They are rather due to the chastening and thought-compelling influence of persistent loss, not altogether unbalanced by a well-cooked lunch at perhaps the best restaurant in any town of Europe. I have lost my little pile. The eight five-franc pieces which I annually devote out of my scanty store to the tutelary god of roulette have been snapped up, one after another, in breathless haste, by the sphinx-like croupiers, impassive priests of that rapacious deity, and now I am sitting, cleaned out, by the edge of the terrace, on a brilliant, cloudless, February afternoon, looking across the zoned and belted bay towards the beautiful grey hills of Rocca-bruna and the gleaming white spit of Bordighera in the distance. 'Tis a modest tribute, my poor little forty francs. Surely the veriest puritan, the oiliest Chadband of them all, will allow a humble scribbler, at so cheap a yearly rate, to purchase wisdom, not unmixed with tolerance, at the gilded shrine of Fors Fortuna!

For what a pother, after all, the unwise of this world are wont to make about one stranded gambling-house, in a remote corner of Liguria! If they were in earnest or sincere, how small a matter they would think it! Of course, when I say so, hypocrisy holds up its hands in holy horror. But that is the way with the purveyors of mint, cumin, and anise; they raise a mighty hubbub over some unimportant detail—in order to feel their consciences clear when business compels them to rob the widow and the orphan. In reality, though Monte Carlo is bad enough in its way—do I not pay it unwilling tribute myself twice a year out of the narrow resources of The Garret, Grub Street?—it is but a skin-deep surface symptom of a profound disease which attacks the heart and core in London and Paris. Compared with Panama, Argentines, British South Africans, and Liberators, Monte Carlo is a mole on the left ankle.

"The Devil's advocate!" you say. Well, well, so be it. The fact is, the supposed moral objection to gambling as such is a purely commercial objection of a commercial nation; and the reason so much importance is attached to it in certain places is because at that particular vice men are likely to lose their money. It is largely a fetish, like the sinfulness of cards, of dice, of billiards. Moreover, the objection is only to the kind of gambling. There is another kind, less open, at which you stand a better chance to win yourself, while other parties stand a better chance to lose; and that kind, which is played in great gambling-houses known as the Stock Exchange and the Bourse, is considered, morally speaking, as quite innocuous. Large fortunes are made at this other sort of gambling, which, of course, sanctifies and almost canonises it. Indeed, if you will note, you will find not only that the objection to gambling pure and simple is commonest in the most commercial countries, but also that even there it is commonest among the most commercial classes. The landed aristocracy, the military, and the labouring men have no objection to betting; nor have the Neapolitan lazzaroni, the Chinese coolies. It is the respectable English counting-house that discourages the vice, especially among the clerks, who are likely to make the till or the cheque-book rectify the little failures of their flutter on the Derby.

Observe how artificial is the whole mild out-cry: how absolutely it partakes of the nature of damning the sins you have no mind to! Here, on the terrace where I sit, and where ladies in needlessly costly robes are promenading up and down to exhibit their superfluous wealth ostentatiously to one another, my ear is continuously assailed by the constant ping, ping, ping of the pigeon-shooting, and my peace disturbed by the flapping death-agonies of those miserable victims. Yet how many times have you heard the tables at Monte Carlo denounced to once or never that you have heard a word said of the poor mangled pigeons? And why? Because nobody loses much money at pigeon-matches. That is legitimate sport, about as good and as bad as pheasant or partridge shooting—no better, no worse, in spite of artificial distinctions; and nobody (except the pigeons) has any interest in denouncing it. Legend has it at Monte Carlo, indeed, that when the proprietors of the Casino wished to take measures "pour attirer les Anglais" they held counsel with the wise men whether it was best to establish and endow an English church or a pigeon-shooting tournament. And the church was in a minority. Since then, I have heard more than one Anglican Bishop speak evil of the tables, but I have never heard one of them say a good word yet for the boxed and slaughtered pigeons.

Let me take a more striking because a less hackneyed case—one that still fewer people would think of. Everybody who visits Monte Carlo gets there, of course, by the P.L.M. If you know this coast at all you will know that P.L.M. is the curt and universal abbreviation for the Paris, Lyon, Méditerranée Railway Company—in all probability the most gigantic and wickedest monopoly on the face of this planet. Yet you never once heard a voice raised yet against the company as a company. Individual complaints get into the Times, of course, about the crowding of the train de luxe, the breach of faith as to places, and the discomforts of the journey; but never a glimmering conception seems to flit across the popular mind that here is a Colossal Wrong, compared to which Monte Carlo is but as a flea-bite to the Asiatic cholera. This chartered abuse connects the three biggest towns in France—Paris, Lyon, Marseilles—and is absolutely without competitors. It can do as it likes; and it does it, regardless—I say "regardless," without qualification, because the P.L.M. regards nobody and nothing. Yet one hears of no righteous indignation, no uprising of the people in their angry thousands, no moral recognition of the monopoly as a Wicked Thing, to be fought tooth and nail, without quarter given. It probably causes a greater aggregate of human misery in a week than Monte Carlo in a century. Besides, the one is compulsory, the other optional. You needn't risk a louis on the tables unless you choose, but, like it or lump it, if you're bound for Nice or Cannes or Mentone, you must open your mouth and shut your eyes and see what P.L.M. will send you. Our own railways, indeed, are by no means free from blame at the hands of the Democracy: the South-Eastern has not earned the eternal gratitude of its season-ticket holders; the children of the Great Western do not rise up and call it blessed. (Except, indeed, in the most uncomplimentary sense of blessing.) But the P.L.M. goes much further than these; and I have always held that the one solid argument for eternal punishment consists in the improbability that its Board of Directors will be permitted to go scot-free for ever after all their iniquities.

I am not wholly joking. I mean the best part of it. Great monopolies that abuse their trust are far more dangerous enemies of public morals than an honest gambling-house at every corner. Monte Carlo as it stands is just a concentrated embodiment of all the evils of our anti-social system, and the tables are by far the least serious among them. It is an Influence for Good, because it mirrors our own world in all its naked, all its over-draped hideousness. There it rears its meretricious head, that gaudy Palace of Sin, appropriately decked in its Haussmanesque architecture and its coquettish gardens, attracting to itself all the idle, all the vicious, all the rich, all the unworthy, from every corner of Europe and America. But Monte Carlo didn't make them; it only gathers to its bosom its own chosen children from the places where they are produced—from London, Paris, Brussels, New York, Berlin, St. Petersburg. The vices of our organisation begot these over-rich folk, begot their diamond-decked women, and their clipped French poodles with gold bangles spanning their aristocratic legs. These are the spawn of land-owning, of capitalism, of military domination, of High Finance, of all the social ills that flesh is heir to. I feel as I pace the terrace in the broad Mediterranean sunshine, that I am here in the midst of the very best society Europe affords. That is to say, the very worst. The dukes and the money-lenders, the Jay Goulds and the Reinachs. The idlest, the cruellest: the hereditary drones, the successful blood-suckers. But to find fault with them only for trying to win one another's ill-gotten gold at a fair and open game of trente-et-quarante, with the odds against them, and then to say nothing about the way they came by it, is to make a needless fuss about a trifle of detail, while overlooking the weightiest moral problems of humanity.

Whoever allows red herrings like these to be trailed across the path of his moral consciousness, to the detriment of the scent which should lead him straight on to the lairs of gigantic evils, deserves little credit either for conscience or sagacity. My son, be wise. Strike at the root of the evil. Let Monte Carlo go, but keep a stern eye on London ground-rents.